An Averted Crisis Over Laughter at Guam's Expense

IT all started as a laugh at a Monitor breakfast and ended up as an international incident. But peace has again settled in.

Just two days after the election, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and National Economic Council director Robert Rubin came to breakfast. The assembled journalists wanted to talk politics, but our guests quickly shifted the focus to the upcoming meeting of the 18-member Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Indonesia.

The hullabaloo started after Mr. Lake told the group, ``One of the points of this trip to Asia is that the next six weeks could literally shake the world... . We are going to shake the economic architecture of the world of the next century.'' It was about here that a reporter piped up with this question: ``Will Guam be admitted to APEC?'' Both Lake and Mr. Rubin leaned back and laughed uproariously.

Lake turned to Rubin, but Rubin tossed the ball right back. And Lake then said, ``I guess I could say that the negotiations have not gotten to that point.'' Our two guests laughed again.

It so happened that David Judson of Gannett News Service, which has a paper on Guam, the Pacific Daily News, was seated at our table. Within hours, his paper was trumpeting the story in Page 1 headlines: ``Clinton Aides Laugh at Guam Membership in APEC.'' His lead: ``Psst! Hey buddy: Did you hear the joke about people in Guam thinking they are entitled to a seat at the table when the 18 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meet next week in Indonesia. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.''

Guam was not amused. Guam Gov. Joseph Ada sent off a fiery letter to President Clinton, demanding that Lake and Rubin be fired unless they apologized. Demonstrators blocked the roads leading to the US Navy base in Guam.

Guam's delegate to the US House, Robert A. Underwood (D), then called Lake in Jakarta to tell him of ``the seriousness of the situation.''

In his article, Mr. Judson explained the backdrop to the incident as ``Guam's ongoing negotiations with the Clinton administration toward agreement to terms of a new status with the United States, ... which envisions allowance of Guam's participation in international organizations such as APEC...''

Lake and Rubin's apology came quickly: ``Any mirth at the meeting was not directed at Guam, but at our surprise at the question.'' They added that their laughter was misunderstood and they had nothing but respect for the people of Guam.

The two Guam officials who had protested just as quickly accepted the apology. Judson's follow-up story quoted Representative Underwood as saying: ``Lake was very respectful.... He also demonstrated an impressive understanding of Guam and he referred to Guam's potential for being a `bridge to Asia.' ''

At the time, I thought I was missing some in-house foreign-policy joke. Judson was the only reporter there who knew of Guam's active interest in joining APEC and how laughter like this would provoke such anger. But, as they say, all's well that ends well. Underwood was quoted as saying: ``There are a lot of silver linings to this cloud. I want to commend the governor and the protesters who have shown that the people of Guam are united.''

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